ERDENET, ORKHON PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Ochirsuren Enkhjargal can never forget the day his beloved dog was shot dead.
He’d removed the dog’s leash so it could bound around the yard — but forgot to fully close the yard door. Unbeknownst to him, the dog slipped through the opening and onto the street. Before long, city officials tasked with the extermination of stray animals shot it dead. By the time Ochirsuren rushed outside, his pet had taken its final breath.
“It was horrible to see my beloved dog shot and killed and taken from me before my very eyes,” he says, three years on.
Between 200,000 and 300,000 dogs are exterminated each year in Mongolia, according to unofficial estimates, including adult dogs shot in broad daylight on the street and puppies stuffed into bags that are hit repeatedly against the trunks of cars and trees. Their dead bodies are deposited in dumpsites or buried underground, a disposal method that environmental activists say is a major cause of soil pollution — so much so that the World Health Organization has sent warning notes to the Mongolian health ministry about the issue, urging swift action. (The ministry did not provide a clear answer to Global Press Journal’s requests for comment in this regard.) Officials insist they are simply following the law.
“We only exterminate them according to [local] government rules and regulations,” says Oyunbayar Battumur, head of the city landscaping department for Orkhon province. “There is currently no other method of extermination.”
Khorloo Khukhnokhoi, GPJ Mongolia
There are no national laws regulating pets or stray animals — existing legislation mostly deals with livestock, a bedrock of the economy. But a quarter of all Mongolian households have pets, including 34% of those who live in ger districts — gers are domed tents, also known as yurts — and 12% of those in apartment buildings. Moreover, in recent years, breeding facilities have mushroomed, bolstered by demand for so-called “purebred” dogs and cats, widely seen as prized possessions.
But as demand for pets has increased, so have strays on the street. It is common for some pet owners to abandon their cat or dog if it proves too difficult to care for or if it was falsely advertised as having a pedigree.
“In Mongolia,” says U. Azjargal, a lawyer and member of the animal welfare nonprofit Lucky Paws, “pets are seen as things.”
Animal rights and environmental activists say this has resulted in a vicious cycle: an unregulated market for pets has caused an explosion of stray animals. There are some 320,000 stray cats and dogs in the capital alone, with the national number estimated to be five times higher.
Stray animals are more likely to be infected, increasing the risk of transmitting viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi to humans. Scientists estimate that more than 6 in 10 known infectious diseases in people can be spread from animals, and 3 in 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals.
In a study by Mongolia’s National Center for Zoonotic Diseases, more than two-thirds of the dogs killed by municipal authorities — from a sample size of 216 — were riven with parasites while 1 in 8 were carriers of cystic echinococcosis, a zoonotic disease that can be deadly if left untreated. According to the study, dog feces — through which the disease is transmitted — are found every 18 meters (59 feet) in Ulaanbaatar, the capital.
But mass extermination of stray animals and improper disposal also impacts public health. “Large amounts of dog carrion are buried each year even when the previous year’s carrion hasn’t been fully absorbed into the soil,” says Dr. Batdelgar Shagdar, a researcher on soil pollution and hygiene at the National Center for Public Health.
Civil society groups, including Lucky Paws, helped formulate the draft version of a new law that regulates the swath of involved actors: pet owners, breeders and state agencies. The law, currently awaiting consideration in the Mongolian Parliament, is touted as the first drafted with active civil society participation. “The law on domestic pets was introduced before Parliament upon the initiative of citizens themselves,” says Zandanshatar Gombojav, speaker of the State Great Khural, the Mongolian Parliament, noting further that the draft received the highest number of votes on the D-Parliament website, a new electronic system that facilitates public participation in the legislative process.
The law includes regulations on the sale and purchase of pets, stipulates the creation of a unified database for pet animals, and lays down requirements for keeping a pet indoors, especially in apartment buildings. It also includes liabilities for people who abandon their pets, businesses who breed animals in unethical ways, and government officials that kill stray animals using cruel methods or kill pets that belong to people. It also directs authorities to adopt more humane and effective methods of managing stray populations.
If the provisions are clear, says Zoriglon Tsog, head of Lucky Paws and one of the authors of the law, “it will be possible to solve these issues effectively and properly.” The law, he adds, is “not only about cats and dogs, but also about public health.”
Despite its popularity, the law does have some detractors. Enkhsuld Tsanamraash, who raises Bankhar dogs — a furry livestock-guarding breed commonly kept by Mongolian herders and Central Asian shepherds in Orkhon province — is one of them. “It seems to be a law that is too biased,” he says, adding that he is also critical of provisions that prohibit raising fighting dogs.
But Ochirsuren, who has been raising dogs since he was a boy and who, for the past decade, has operated a Mongolian dog breeding service, is hopeful that the law will deter incidents like the one that cost him his pet years ago. “They should not shoot our dogs if we let them out of the yard just once,” he says. “This is why we need the law.”
Khorloo Khukhnokhoi, GPJ Mongolia